CONROY, NICHOLAS, farmer and politician; b. 1816 at Rathdowney, Ireland, youngest son of Thomas Conroy and Christine Le Herron; d. 13 Oct. 1879 at his home in Tignish, P.E.I.
Nicholas Conroy was educated in Ireland before immigrating to northwestern Prince Edward Island with his father in 1835. He took up farming, and as a comparatively educated man he often acted as an intermediary between his French-speaking Acadian neighbours and the land agents employed by the Cunards, the proprietors of his district. In 1842 he entered politics and was unsuccessful in contesting an assembly seat; four years later he was elected for Prince County, First District, and joined the Tory caucus. At this time he was not a moving force in the House of Assembly, and took little part in its debates.
Conroy did not run in the election of 1850, although he continued to be known as a Tory. He took an active part in public life again only when the Bible question arose late in the 1850s [see George Coles]. The Tories, in opposition, were demanding that “the open Bible” be legalized in the district schools, which were religiously mixed. The Liberal government, with the support of Bishop Bernard Donald MacDonald*, refused to give this statutory basis to permissive daily reading of the Bible fearing the supposed rigidities this would involve. Conroy, a prominent Catholic layman, supported the bishop and the government. He left his old party, and in 1859 successfully contested First Prince as a Liberal; William Henry Pope’s Islander reported him as having said in June of the previous year: “that as an irishman and a catholic he was bound to support the [liberal] government.”
The Tories won the election, and Conroy found himself in opposition. He may have felt uncomfortable with the Liberals, for he soon attempted to bring about a reconciliation between the Conservatives and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He was well suited for this task: not only was he a former colleague of the premier, Edward Palmer*, and of other Tory leaders, but in 1851 he had married Catherine McDonald, a niece of his parish priest, Father Peter MacIntyre*, who had become the new bishop of Charlottetown. These negotiations failed, and resulted in even more sectarian animosity. When the election of 1863 was held, the voters divided on religious lines; all Protestant districts returned Conservatives and all Catholic ones returned Liberals. In First Prince, MacIntyre and Conroy combined to oust the latter’s running-mate of the previous campaign and to have George Howlan* elected in his place. Conroy lost his own seat in 1867, and remained out of politics for seven years, until he won a by-election following the appointment of Howlan to the federal Senate.
Conroy re-entered the assembly in 1874 virtually as a spokesman for Bishop MacIntyre. In a pastoral issued a few months earlier, the bishop had adopted a “centrist” position, and declared it the duty of Catholic electors to withhold support from all parties that would not grant the church its demands in matters of education. Conroy agreed with MacIntyre: “Catholic members [of the assembly] should not associate with any party who had the power to do right, and yet did wrong.” The correct course, he said, was to establish a separate school system in which religion and education would “go hand in hand.” He often called upon Catholic assemblymen to desert the Conservative government, which was heavily dependent upon their support, and become “centrists.” He was unsuccessful, however, as only one assemblyman and one legislative councillor joined him.
The election of 1876 provided a final settlement of the school question. The campaign was waged entirely upon the one issue, and the result was a victory for the “Free Schoolers” of Louis Davies* over the “Denominationalists” led by James Colledge Pope* and William Wilfred Sullivan*. Following the passage of the Public Schools Act in the next year, Conroy gave up the struggle for separate schools, and even became a trustee of the public school in Tignish. The school question had been the basis of Davies’ coalition, and with its liquidation his government disintegrated. In September 1878 the premier attempted in vain to have Conroy and some other Catholic assemblymen return to the Liberal Party. When Sullivan formed a new Conservative administration in March of the following year, Conroy joined the Executive Council. However, ill health forced his resignation on 11 June, and two days later he was appointed registrar of deeds. He died of brain disease, leaving his wife and several children.
Nicholas Conroy was neither a brilliant man nor by nature a leader of men. On most issues he held the views of a conventional Island politician of his period; for example, he opposed confederation in the 1860s and advocated the abolition of leasehold tenure. He nevertheless also represents in its sharpest form a trend of fundamental significance in the social and political history of 19th-century Prince Edward Island: over the years, he became increasingly clerically oriented in matters of church and state. The mood of reaction within the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world, with which his friend Bishop MacIntyre agreed entirely, provides a partial explanation, but undoubtedly the death of his brother, Dr James Herron Conroy, as an apostate also affected him deeply. Thus Conroy was basically a conservative man whose alignments were determined more by the interests of his church than by secular considerations; his three shifts in party allegiance reflect the instability of Island political parties in his time.
[The author is indebted to Miss Margaret Conroy, a granddaughter of Nicholas Conroy, for an interview on 30 July 1969. PAPEI, Prince Edward Island, Executive Council, Minutes, 1879. Prince Edward Island, House of Assembly, Journals, 1847–49, 1859–66, 1874–79; Debates and proceedings, 1859–66, 1874–79; Supreme Court, Estates Division, will of Nicholas Conroy, 23 Sept. 1879. Abstract of the proceedings before the Land Commissioners’ Court, held during the summer of 1860, to inquire into the difficulties relative to the rights of landowners and tenants in Prince Edward Island, reporters J. D. Gordon and David Laird (Charlottetown, 1862), 49–53. Obituaries will be found in Examiner (Charlottetown), 14 Oct. 1879, Patriot (Charlottetown), 16 Oct. 1879, and Pioneer (Montague, P.E.I.), 17 Oct. 1879. Can. parl. comp., 1875, 639. “Peter Conroy,” Past and present of Prince Edward Island . . . , ed. D. A. MacKinnon and A. B. Warburton (Charlottetown, ), 670–71. MacMillan, Catholic Church in PEI, 372–77. Robertson, “Religion, politics, and education in PEI.” i.r.r.]